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Queen Elizabeth and the ‘Mask of Youth’

Oil painting on panel, Queen Elizabeth I, British (English) School, 16th century.
Painting of Queen Elizabeth I, British (English) School from the 16th century | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The ‘Mask of Youth’ is a term given to the portraits and miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I which adopted a standardised image of ageless beauty. Such representations of the Queen were made following state proclamations which prohibited any images of Elizabeth to be distributed which gave ‘great offence’. Read on for the history and examples of the ‘Mask of Youth’ in National Trust collections.

Strength and stability

‘Mask of Youth’ imagery arose from a government decision in 1594 to use an idealised portrait format. A possible reason for its adoption was that it was felt that any lifelike depiction of the ageing queen would reinforce instability within the realm, due to the uncertainty over the succession.

A tool for propaganda

The ‘Mask of Youth’ therefore offered a mechanism for Elizabeth’s government to control her image for propagandistic reasons, maintaining a strong profile of the unmarried and childless queen as still a forceful protector of the land.

Political tokens

The miniature depicted above was possibly commissioned by Sir Thomas Vavasour, one of Elizabeth’s gentlemen of the court. It is believed to have been produced by Nicholas Hilliard in the 1590s and is one of the finest and largest miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I to employ the 'Mask of Youth'.

Promotion from the court

It was common practice for courtiers to commission these miniatures, as Elizabeth often expected her courtiers and nobles to promote her image. It became fashionable to wear them as symbols of the wearer’s devotion and loyalty to the monarch, and they were then often made into pendants and cameos.

Queen Elizabeth (after Zuchero) by Henry Bone (1755-1834) in the Drawing room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. One of the collection of enamel miniature on copper.
Queen Elizabeth (after Zuchero) by Henry Bone (1755-1834) in the Drawing room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. One of the collection of enamel miniature on copper. | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

More than a portrait

Instead of this miniature being purely a visual depiction of Elizabeth, the primary focus is the promotion of the glory and majesty of kingship, exemplified by the magnificence of her gown and jewels. Her dress incorporates other imagery, with the V-shape of the waist possibly representing virginity and chastity.

Representing Cynthia, the moon goddess

Within Elizabeth’s headdress there is a jewel shaped like a crescent moon which has been seen by some to represent Cynthia, the Greek moon goddess. Its inclusion here may represent Elizabeth’s beauty to be like the waxing and waning of the moon.

Examples of the ‘Mask of Youth’ in the collections we care for

Portrait miniature, oil on vellum, Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard
Portrait miniature of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) by Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547–1619). Oil on vellum. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard at Ham House

You can see Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth I at Ham House near Richmond, where it is kept in the ‘Green Closet’. This room is the only example in Britain of a picture closet complete with its original collection of 87 highly prized miniatures.

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The cult of Elizabeth?

Some have argued that these miniatures represent a replacement of the cult of the Virgin Mary, however this is problematic as such movement would have been open to accusations of idolatry, or the worship of idols.

Secular or religious?

An alternative reading is that these images were a general promotion of the divinity of the monarchy. With a focus on classical imagery associated with Cynthia or representations of virginity, it has been argued that this promotion was of secular rather than religious nature.

Personal promotion

There is also debate around how much these miniatures were linked to the personal advancement of the buyer. On one hand, they could be seen to promote the buyer’s wealth and social standing.

On the other, they may have been symbols of a form of courtly, chivalric love which centred upon promoting the virtues of loyalty and duty to the public good, a sentiment embodied by the queen herself. On balance, there is an argument to be made for it being a mixture of the two.

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

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